Dawson City lies on the Yukon River at its confluence with the Klondike River. It’s a town steeped in Gold Rush history, and its story is one of the ambitions of thousands of down-and-out prospectors who fled the depression choking the United States to seek their fortunes in the Klondike region of the Yukon. Located just blocks from the legendary Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall, the Westmark Inn Dawson City is the perfect place to base your adventure of the area.
Today, all that’s needed to mobilize 100,000 people anywhere in the world is a good Facebook or Twitter campaign. Back in 1896, what rallied the masses were eye-popping Seattle newspaper headlines screaming “GOLD!” upon the arrival of the first ships bearing the riches of the north. Dawson City is a living reminder of the gold rush years but there is one time of year when the events of the late 19th century come to life more than ever. Residents and visitors gather to celebrate the gold rush from August 16-19 at Dawson City’s Discovery Days Celebration. Discovery Days events include family-friendly activities such as crafts, face painting, performances by Diamond Tooth Gerties’ can-can dancers, writing competitions, walking tours, an arts festival and a golf tournament, to name a few.
It all started when in 1896, three sourdoughs by the names of George Carmack, Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim found gold in Rabbit Creek, later renamed Bonanza Creek. Word of the monumental discovery got out and thus began the Klondike Gold Rush. The following year, close to 100,000 white-collar workers, miners, photographers, saloon-keepers, gamblers and con men landed in Dyea and Skagway and pushed on by foot, carrying the required year’s worth of supplies over the Chilkoot Trail. Only about 40,000 stampeders actually made it across the 3,501-foot-high Chilkoot Pass – a steep, grueling trek over ice and snow – walking in single file with little time to rest. Once over the pass, they had to build makeshift watercraft capable of carrying them 500 miles down the Yukon River and through treacherous rapids. Many lives were lost in the process.
As luck would have it, most of the prospectors arrived in the Klondike too late, after the banks, hills and streams were already staked and claimed, leaving little to nothing for the newcomers to mine. The entrepreneurial among them opened businesses in the muddy, dilapidated camp that was Dawson City at the time and turned the place into mecca of vice and entertainment. Dawson City’s population grew from 500 to 30,000 people in just two years and by 1905 would see 1,250,000 pounds of Klondike gold pass through it.
Word of gold in Nome, Alaska came in 1899, and Dawson City shrunk almost as quickly as it sprang up. Today it is home to about 2,000 permanent residents, including the Tr’ondek Hwech’in people who were displaced from their spot on the Yukon River back when the land was bought from the government. The Danoja Zho Cultural Centre is a gateway into the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Heritage and is a recommended destination for anyone interested in the history of the area.
Declared a national historic site in the early 1960s, many of the buildings in Dawson City were restored, reconstructed or stabilized to preserve its original character. The now bustling travel destination, surrounded by natural beauty, offers numerous ways for visitors to enjoy and learn about Klondike history: a guided walk highlights the town’s history, and a cruise along the Yukon River, retraces the old stern-wheeler route past abandoned settlements nestled in forested hills. Within walking distance from the Westmark Inn are a Klondike-themed casino, the Dawson City Museum, the Palace Grand Theatre with its curtained sections, and the Robert Service and Jack London cabins that house memorabilia and samples of their writings.
Visit the Dawson City Visitors Association to learn more about Dawson City, the Discovery Days Celebration and Klondike Gold Rush history.